Chef’s Corner: Brandon Clemens, The Bruce Hotel


After a period of time cooking in Europe and England, chef Brandon Clemens returned to southwestern Ontario last year. But, ironically, the day he stepped into the kitchen as The Bruce Hotel’s new executive chef in March 2020, he found his staff busy packing up food and supplies.

“I walked into the kitchen and it’s literally the first day of lockdown. Chefs are cleaning out fridges and shutting it down. Being there while it was happening was a strange experience,” Clemens recalls.

Fast forward to today and both The Bruce, a boutique hotel with 25 guestrooms and suites in Stratford, Ont., and Clemens reflect on what the pandemic has meant. “How we operate changed,” he says of a condition that’s industry-wide. “But it was an opportunity to learn new styles of cuisine — food that we could package and travels well. It was a dynamic shift and a whole new market, essentially.”

Cambridge, Ont.-born Clemens, 29, started his hospitality journey at the nearby Elm Hurst Inn. “I knew some cooks there and started as a dishwasher when I was 15 years old.” It was a time-honoured progression: having paid his dues in the dish pit, Clemens was eventually able “to crack some eggs,” he says, and do some cooking. A high-school apprenticeship came next and, though he had an interest in graphic design, he enrolled at Fanshawe College for formal culinary training. “It wasn’t until my last high-school year that I realized cooking was something I was really interested in. I discovered I liked the push of the kitchen. Every five minutes there’s a new adventure, a new problem to solve.”

After achieving his Red Seal, he left for Alberta’s Fairmont Château Lake Louise to apply those problem-solving skills as chef de partie — a position that, in 2015, led him to another Fairmont icon: The Savoy Hotel in London, U.K., where he ran Kaspar’s seafood program and oversaw menu development for then executive chef Holger Jackisch.

His varied experiences have helped prepare him for the current reality. Noting the contrasts and the varied systems from kitchen to kitchen and country to country — how chefs organize and approach their tasks — is something he says he’s brought to his role at

The Bruce Hotel. The times are challenging: the kitchen — and the tasting menu — are circumscribed by the pandemic; it means a crew of eight cooks, many of whom attended the Stratford Chefs School a few blocks away. “We’d love to have some more,” Clemens says, acknowledging that COVID-19 has likely changed dining for a long time. He cites a San Pellegrino forum he’s joined with chefs around the world discussing the post-pandemic world and how food at restaurants is going to be received. “I think people are going to be so thankful when they are able to sit together at a table again and share food with friends. Before the pandemic, diners were very focused on their needs and less on the restaurant experience.”

Post-pandemic will be different, he says, despite the joy we will feel given our new freedom. A tasting menu offers an experience that includes engaged conversation about food, according to Clemens. “It’s the evolution of an evening that is about more than the food.” But there will be obstacles too, he notes, including dealing with a new way of looking at food and serving across the industry — and not just at higher-end venues with tasting menus. “It’s part of a bigger question for after the pandemic. Food will cost more and it might be difficult for businesses to prosper in this market,” Clemens says, predicting small plates and sharing will be popular.
“When everything re-opens, there will be a big surge in the sharing scene. That will be because of cost, but it’s also something that people will want — that sharing and breaking-bread moment.”

Written by Andrew Coppolino

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